Every day for the past two months, dozens of demonstrators have gathered in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek to protest against government interference in the parliamentary elections earlier this year. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports on what the protesters want and how the government has responded.
Prague, 15 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The protest is small but determined. As they have done each day for exactly two months today, some 100 demonstrators are gathered in Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek, to protest against vote-rigging and the jailing of a prominent opposition figure.
Authorities in Kyrgyzstan have broken up demonstrations in other towns and arrested and fined protesters, including some of those in Bishkek.
In the early days of the protest (on March 16), one protester had this to say to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service:
"Frankly, this is not a struggle between an opposition candidate and a pro-government candidate. This is a fight between the authorities and the people."
The protesters are demanding new elections in several districts, where they and international observers say the vote counts in the February parliamentary elections and March run-offs were falsified. And they want opposition politician Feliks Kulov, arrested shortly after the elections, released from prison.
In the weeks leading up to the elections, the government, in the form of the Central Election Commission and the court system, did severe damage to the hopes of political opposition parties. The Election Commission barred the second- and third-largest parties -- El and Ar-Namys -- from the running, citing minor violations in registration. And in a dubious ruling, the courts barred another opposition party, the Democratic Movement of Kyrgyzstan, from running, saying that it had violated its own party convention rules.
Leaders from those parties tried to run as independent candidates. But they faced other forms of pressure.
Daniyar Usenov of the El party, for example, found himself facing charges from a case that had been closed back in 1996. He ran anyway, and international monitors (OSCE) say he won his Bishkek district seat outright. But the official results said he had to compete in a run-off election. Before that occurred, his opponent submitted evidence that Usenov had evaded taxes, and he was disqualified.
Some of those protesting in Bishkek are taking up Usenov's cause. But the main catalyst for the protests was the treatment of another opposition figure -- Feliks Kulov, head of the Ar-Namys party, who was also running as an independent.
Kulov, a former communist apparatchik who at various times has been vice president, head of national security, governor of the Chu Region, and mayor of Bishkek, had said winning a seat in parliament would be a prelude to running for president later this year. He had wide support in his Kara-Buura district and was favored to win the seat.
Before the votes were counted, his supporters were already complaining of flagrant election fraud. Kulov was declared the loser, and a demonstration began in Kara-Buura district the night of the runoff. The complaints were validated when officials from the local election commissions came forward and admitted buying votes and taking payments to forge ballots. One official committed suicide.
The demonstrations spread within days, even hours, to five of Kyrgyzstan's seven administrative regions (Talas, Osh, Batken, Issyk-Kul, Chu).
Kyrgyzstan's government has the best record in the region for allowing public demonstrations, and usually after a few days everyone goes home. But these demonstrators did not return home. The Navruz holiday on March 21 swelled the number of demonstrators and lent a festive atmosphere to calls for new elections, investigations into vote rigging, and resignations of government officials.
Authorities took action a week into the protests (March 23), breaking up the one in Kara-Buura and arresting more than 100 people. That same day, Kulov was arrested at a hospital in Bishkek -- like Usenov, he was brought in on old charges, in his case, of abuse of power. The protestors added freeing Kulov to their list of demands.
Last week, authorities broke up an unsanctioned march through Bishkek and beat several of the protesters. Protester Tinaiym Suierkulova said even such heavy-handed tactics would not stop her.
"When we went toward the post office on the way to the protest, about 400 militia officers surrounded us, handcuffed us, put us on buses, and started beating some of the people. But as long as authorities do not fulfill our demands, we will continue to come out [to demonstrate]. We are ready for anything. If they beat us, kill us, that is just the way it will be. Until our demands are met, we will stand here as we are standing here now. If it is necessary we will commit self-immolation, commit suicide. Until they free Kulov and give him his mandate, we are not going anywhere."
Security Council Secretary Bolot Januzakov said last week the demonstrators are being deceived.
"I explained to them (the demonstrators) that they should not follow certain people who are interested only in achieving their personal ambitions. That is shameful."
Bishkek is now the only place where demonstrations continue. Some protesters have been fined and some arrested, and the location of their protest has been forcefully moved from the center of town to an outlying area. The numbers have never exceeded several hundred, but there is a dedicated core of some 100 people who have showed up every day, braving first snow and now heat. The demonstrations are now entering their third month.
(Naryn Idinov of the Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)